As anyone whose nerves have been jangled by a babys howl or who have been riveted by the sight of an attractive person knows, nature has evolved sensory systems to be exquisitely tuned to relevant input. A major question in neurobiology is how neurons tune the strength of their interconnections to optimally respond to such inputs.
Neuronal circuitry consists of a web of neurons, each triggering others by launching bursts of neurotransmitters at targets on receiving neurons to produce nerve impulses in those targets. Neurons adjust the strength of those connections adaptively, to amplify or suppress connections. Some four decades ago, a general principle called the "efficient coding hypothesis" was formulated, holding that sensory systems adjust to efficiently represent the complex, dynamic sounds, sights, and other sensory input from the environment.
Writing in the August 4, 2005, issue of Neuron, researchers led by Christian K. Machens of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and Andreas Herz of Humboldt-University Berlin describe experiments with grasshopper auditory neurons that reveal new details of such sensory coding. Their findings show that "optimal stimulus ensembles" that trigger the neurons differ from those the grasshopper hears in the natural environment but largely overlap with components of natural sounds found in mating and mate-location calls.
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